Origins of the Vousden Surname


There is no generally agreed explanation of how or where the Vousden name originated. I have heard it said that they were French, or Dutch, or Belgian, and came to England at some time unknown. These are hardly theories, and are mostly family stories - or myths - handed down by word of mouth, although not necessarily to be dismissed for that reason, of course.

I have referred to more than 20 learned books on the study of surnames, not one of which mentions the Vousden name. Turning to the internet, I have found it littered with web sites ostensibly dedicated to this subject, most of which are nothing more than cynical attempts to sell T-shirts, mugs, scrolls, coats of arms and other pseudo-genealogical garbage emblazoned with the so-called "history" of our name. There are some honourable exceptions, but I have yet to find one with a satisfactory explanation of the origin of the Vousden surname.

I regret to say that one of the worst examples is the book The Vousden Name in History, published by, which in its 89 pages has exactly nothing to say about the origin of the name, and I can unreservedly recommend anyone not to buy it.

Hence I have taken it upon myself to work through the scattered evidence and come to a tentative conclusion, which I present here.

Huguenots and Weavers

I started studying the Vousden name, beyond my own grandmother's immediate family, in about 2000. I quickly came across a conventional wisdom that we were descendants of Huguenot refugees, exiles from Catholic persecution in France or the Low Countries in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. However, I have never been shown a shred of evidence for these assertions.

For a long time my own Vousden brickwall stood firmly in the early nineteenth century, that is, until I found the Goudhurst parish registers. There I found my 3 x great grandfather William Vousden (1800-1839) and also his brother Daniel (1804-1839), the second of many Daniels in my family (my father; my grandmother's brother; my great grandfather; my great, great grandfather; and my great, great, great grandfather's brother, to name but five).

My research quickly progressed backwards to the marriage in Maidstone in 1733 of my 6 x great grandparents John Vousden and Sarah Wousley, both "of Goudhurst parish", and then into the sixteenth century. As I worked back I became increasingly doubtful about the Huguenot story.

While the first French Protestant congregation in London was founded in 1550 the refugees were small in number until later in the century, especially after the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day in France on August 24, 1572. The Vousdens could have been amongst the first Huguenots to arrive in England but I was finding more and more Vousdens in the small village of Goudhurst in the Kentish Weald in the 1580s, and then a marriage, of Thomas Vouseden to Annes Benden in Goudhurst in 1561.

There are also some Vousdens in this period a little further afield. For example, the Sussex Marriage Index records the marriage of George Fousden and Joan Pott in Rye in 1582, Margaret Fouston and Edward Ingrom also at Rye in 1581, and Joan Vousden and Geoffrey Parker at Rotherfield in 1563. Rye is about 25 miles from Goudhurst, and Rotherfield is perhaps 15 miles away.

Flemish Weavers Cottages England: typical of villages in Goudhurst and the nearby area. [Painting by Debbie Homewood]

Around this time, in about 2005, I began to surmise that perhaps the Vousdens had arrived much earlier, during the waves of immigration of Flemish weavers. In 1270 King Henry III extended a royal invitation to "all workers of woollen cloth" to come and settle in England, and in 1331 Edward III issued letters of protection to Flemish weavers who wished to settle in England. Flemish emigration to the British Isles continued throughout the 14th century and in the 15th century, Henry VII brought over some specialist weavers from Flanders and Brabant. Like many neighbouring villages Goudhurst had - and still has - weavers cottages that go back to the Flemish immigration in this period. However, the only evidence I have found of any Vousden working as a weaver is the Will dated 21 June 1659 of one John Vousden of Guestling, between Rye and Hastings near the Sussex coast.

But not all Flemish immigrants were weavers. Flemings have been recorded as resident in England at least since the Norman invasion of 1066 when they helped turn the tide in favour of William the Conqueror. Flemings immediately were involved in subduing the British Isles for William. Successive waves of Flemings arrived in England at the invitation of English monarchs in every subsequent century.

The Meaning of the Vousden Surname - the Wealden Dens?

Without totally discounting this Flemish weaver notion, I turned my attention to the meaning of the surname rather than the possible arrival from elsewhere of people already bearing the name.

Goudhurst, Staplehurst, Cranbrook and Biddenden, Kent: [Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service.]

The geographical origins of the Vousdens seems to be solidly located in the Weald, an ancient forest area that straddles the border between the counties of Kent and Sussex. In fact, most if not all Vousden families originate in this small area, with a focus upon Goudhurst. Moreover, Kent is a county of "dens", just as Sussex is a county of "hursts", and these suffixes are strongly represented to this day in local place names (yes, Goudhurst is in Kent; names are no respecters of administrative boundaries).

I now consider that the principal clue to the meaning of the Vousden surname may be in the "-den" element of the name. This is a constant in most spelling variations of the name: Forsden, Fousden, Fowsden, Vowsden, Vousden, etc.

The Saxon word "den" means a pasture, especially a woodland one for pigs, and is a common place name suffix in the Kent part of the Weald, where hog-breeding in the forest flourished in medieval times. These enclosed, cleared forest areas frequently became human settlements, for example, Tenterden, Biddenden, Frittenden. However, hundreds of these dens did not become settlements, or have not survived as such.

In Sussex these hog pastures are more likely to be named "-hurst", meaning a hillock or coppice, although there is no clear line of divide and the distinction certainly does not cleanly follow the county boundary, as evidenced by Goudhurst, Staplehurst and Hawkhurst which are all in Kent.

If the Saxon "den" of Vousden implies a locative origin of the name then the preceding "Fous" or "Fows" of early times may represent a given name of the man who lived or worked at the original den. For example, the place names Fosbrook in Staffordshire, Fosdyke in Lincolnshire and Foston in Derbyshire are said to be the brook, dyke and farmstead respectively of a man called Fótr, in the Old Scandinavian language of the Vikings (comprising Old Danish and Old Norse).

This suggests that the earliest Vousden(s) may have been hog-keepers, or swine herdsmen, or in some other way closely connected with the dens in the forest of the Weald.

The Beginning of Surnames

Surnames were introduced into England by the Norman barons after the Conquest of 1066, hereditary surnames going back only a generation or two in Normandy whence they came and not yet widely used even by 1066. When the Norman landowners started to acquire surnames they commonly took the name of the family's chief residence, as often the one back in Normandy as from their newly-acquired English estates.

Some rich Londoners possessed hereditary names by the second half of the twelfth century but even in the thirteenth century surnames were not yet commonplace. Neverthless, by the time the poll tax was levied in 1388-81 very few townsmen and women had no surname. In the English countryside hereditary surnames generally took longer to take hold, in some areas not until the sixteenth century.

The study of surnames has found that many English surnames sprang from just one person back in the middle ages, so that everyone bearing the name is related. DNA testing is beginning to support this assertion. How and where names began, what their original meanings were, and their various spellings, is called onomastics or onomatology. Most surnames evolved from one of four general sources: occupation (e.g. Bloomer, Carter), location or place (e.g. Brook, Stonehouse), patronymic or father's name (e.g. Robinson, Johnson) and personal characteristics (e.g. Brown).

However, in the early centuries of surnames they were more spoken than written. When they were written down the spelling was as the writer heard it, and so spellings of the same name varied

In the sixteenth, seventeenth and even eighteenth centuries spelling variants were widespread and numerous, including Vowsden but also Fousden, Fouston, Forsden, Fowsden and others. The frequency of the name beginning with "F" was greater the farther back in time, suggesting that the sound of the name evolved as well as its spelling. I understand that this is a product of the late evolution of the Germanic "Kentish Old English" into more modern French spelling, but I am no expert in orthography and the rise and fall of dialects (any offers to explain this?).

In any case, my research shows that by about 1800 the Vousden name came to predominate amongst all the variant spellings of the name and it was during the first half of the nineteenth century that the general spelling of the surname settled at Vousden. Vowsdens diminished rapidly in number, and the Fousden, Fowsden and similar spellings disappeared altogether.

The Earliest Vousden

I made a major breakthrough with the Vousden research in October 2007 when I found reference (in the Kent Archaeological Society's Research pages) to a man who is most likely a forebear of Vousdens, more than 200 years earlier than the earliest one previously known to me. This is Simon de Forsdenne, who appears in the Kent Lay Subsidy (a tax paid on movable property to help fund the army in times of war) Roll of 1334/5, and as a property owner he was taxed 4s. 0d. He is listed in the Hundred of Badekelegh or Barkley, which was northeastward of Cranbrook.

This hundred (an ancient administrative area) contained most of the parish of Biddenden, and part of the parishes of Benenden, Cranbrook, Frittenden, Halden, Headcorne, and Smarden. Thus, in modern terms, Simon probably lived within 5 or 6 miles of Goudhurst. I have no doubt that he was a very early progenitor of the people who came to be known by the surname Vousden.

One hundred and forty years later, in 1474, Adam Forsden made a will, also in Biddenden. This document is recorded in the Calendar of Wills and Administrations 1396-1558 of Canterbury Probate Registry. Adam may have been a descendant of Simon de Forsdenne although I have yet to find any evidence for this beyond the coincidence of name and place.

The Local History page of a Biddenden web site explains: "The area of the present Biddenden parish contained in Saxon times a number of separate 'dens' or small clearings in the great forest of Andred. Between 700AD and 900 AD freemen and swineherds would return to the same clearing in the forest, and this resulted in the dens becoming named after the family or household who used them."

"Biddenden (Bydyndene in 993) was probably the den used by the family and followers of the Jutish man Bidda. Bidda's main holding may have been near Wye. The many houses with 'den' endings to their names indicate where other clearings were made in this forest; many became attached to manors elsewhere in Kent.

"Gradually, tracks became established and the clearings were enlarged for houses and crops. Eventually the village centre developed as a trading point where several tracks met and the first church was probably built there."

Another Biddenden web site, part of the © VillageNet, says: "The village name derives from a Jutish freeman named Bidda whose pig herders had made clearings (dens) in the forest of Andredsweald. The name has been spelt differently in the past and it is known that before the Norman invasion of 1066 that the area was called Bydyngdene and then changed to Bidindaenne then Bidenden. ... In 1331 the export of unwashed wool was prohibited by King Edward III. He encouraged weavers from Flanders to settle here, thus bringing their weaving and dying techniques to England. Biddenden and some of its neighbouring villages soon became an important centre of the Broadcloth manufacturing industry."

Fosten Green - Home of the Vousdens?

Fosten Green (at centre of map) and Biddenden, Kent: [Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service.]

There is a hamlet in the parish of Biddenden named Fosten Green, about 2 miles south-west of Biddenden village. It is my contention that Fosten Green was one of the dens of Biddenden and in turn may have given its name to the first person to adopt what became the "Vousden" surname.

If this proposition for the origin of the Vousden surname is a sound explanation then the first Vousden(s) were probably of longstanding presence in the Weald, perhaps associated with hog farming, and to be found in places around the town of Cranbrook (Goudhurst and Biddenden), close to the Kent/Sussex border.

However, it would also be consistent with this suggestion of name origin that the first Vousden may have been a Flemish weaver, who set up his workshop in Fosten Green, and his surname is locally derived and not Flemish at all.

If you have any thoughts on the above, supportive or critical (especially if you are an expert in onomastics!), I would very much like to hear from you. So just E-mail! me, and we can discuss it further.

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